Latino families in Sonoma County struggle with both distance learning, COVID-19 risks

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This spring, Bryan Velasco did the majority of the work for his sixth grade class at Luther Burbank Elementary School in Santa Rosa on his cellphone.

His sister, Ashlyn Martinez, a third grader, worked on a school-issued Chromebook. Sometimes Bryan and Ashlyn had classroom Zoom meetings the same time, crashing their Wi-Fi hot spot, which was provided by Santa Rosa City Schools when it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would extend distance learning through the end of the school year. Then the mic on Ashlyn’s computer stopped working, making it impossible for her to ask her teacher, Anne West, any questions.

“Wi-Fi is good but not that good,” Bryan said. “It would glitch out or everything would stop and freeze. Every time I would talk it would freeze for me. I couldn’t hear anything my teacher or classmates were saying and they couldn’t hear me.”

When asked where they wanted to be when school starts in August, both were emphatic: They want to go back to school. They miss their friends. They miss their teachers. Doing schoolwork was too difficult from home.

That option is no longer on the table for Bryan and Ashlyn or any other of Sonoma County’s 70,000 school kids. On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered schools in Sonoma County and 31 other counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list to move all instruction online to start the school year.

Sonoma County’s largest school districts, including Santa Rosa City Schools, were already preparing to keep their campuses closed, at least for the beginning of the school year. While the outcome was not unexpected, the decision to keep students home in distance learning programs is shattering on many fronts for some families.

For thousands of Latino families in Sonoma County, the question of whether students return to school campuses is not one merely of convenience or even one solely based on academics. The families most negatively impacted by distance learning — because of language divides and difficulty accessing technology and daytime child care — are also the same families disproportionately contracting COVID-19 in Sonoma County.

That puts Latino families on a collision course between two competing needs: The children who are less likely to thrive in technology-heavy, distance learning programs — the ones who would benefit most from returning to a normalized school setting — are the same children who face the highest risk of contracting or transmitting the virus that is most easily spread through sustained group contact in enclosed areas. In a word: A classroom.

’They really don’t want to get sick’

Nearly 70% of the coronavirus infections in Sonoma County are in the Latino population, despite Latinos making up just 27% of the county’s 500,000 residents. Among all locals under 18 who tested positive for the virus through Friday, 158 of 178 individuals, or 89%, were Latino.

The Velasco family is well aware of the dangers of the virus — especially to a family like theirs.

The Velascos live in a three-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood, where Bryan and Ashlyn live with their mom, Ana, and her parents. Ana is expecting her third child this week. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and forced hundreds of thousands of people in Sonoma County to either work from home or pushed them out of a job, all three adults in the house — considered essential front-line employees — continued to work. Ana Velasco works at a check-cashing service, her mom as a housekeeping manager at a hotel and her dad at a nursery.

“They know they have to go to work and everything, but they are also being safe,” Bryan said. “They have to wear masks during work because they really don’t want to get sick.”

Students largely on their own

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and schools were shuttered almost overnight in mid-March, educators in Sonoma County scrambled to move to so-called distance learning where students would access assignments online, via video and, in some cases, paper packets distributed from school sites. The shift in focus was unprecedented and not without its challenges.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in Sonoma County with nearly 16,000 students, moved to loan 4,000 Chromebooks to any household that needed one. Then the district began lending out 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots. Teachers pivoted from standing in front of whiteboards and addressing their class to delivering lessons virtually.

But those virtual lessons are more easily accessible in households with multiple computers, broadband internet connections and an adult at home to act as a learning coach. At Burbank, and other schools, the move to distance learning shined an even brighter spotlight on needs that have always been there.

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For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

At Burbank, nearly 90% of the school’s almost 330 students are Latino, according to the latest numbers from the California Department of Education. Almost 54% are English-language learners and 8 out of 10 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Teachers recall in the early days of shelter-in-place making house calls to deliver supplies, check in with students and fill a much-needed socially distanced, face-to-face need.

And what they found drove home what many families were struggling with: Parents at work while kids tried to muddle through lessons, poor connectivity and homework, largely on their own.

“A lot of our parents work in the service industry,” Burbank Elementary first grade teacher Angelica Moreno said. “They don’t have the type of job where they can work from home, they have to keep going. The child (is) left with relatives or older siblings.”

County data shows that Latinos are steeply overrepresented in positive COVID-19 cases in which patients have listed their jobs as manufacturing, agricultural work, construction, food and beverage production, janitorial and public works. The issue can be exacerbated by overcrowded living quarters, lack of health coverage and jobs in industries that don’t offer paid sick leave, potentially prompting some to show up at work when they are ill.

’Those are my kids’

Across Santa Rosa City Schools’ 13 elementary and elementary charter schools, 62% of students are Latino, 40% are English-language learners and 62% qualify for a reduced price lunch. In the county, Latinos make up nearly 47% of elementary enrollment, while 21% of students are considered English learners and nearly 48% of all students qualify for the reduced-price lunch program.

The demographic makeup of the student population in the county’s largest district make any debate about what school will look like this year not only a question of academics but an issue of public safety. Although Santa Rosa City Schools is allowing families to choose from three distinct education programs, all three will be taught remotely for at least the first quarter of the school year. The district will then reevaluate its ability to reopen classrooms in some fashion later in the fall, if conditions allow.

For Burbank fifth/sixth grade combination teacher Ross Hause, the answer to what is best for kids had always been easy: In-person teaching. Distance learning, even when executed well, sucks the human connection from what should not only be a classroom but a community. And learning from home is especially hard in the households of many of his students. But as coronavirus case numbers continue to rise and take a disproportionate toll on the Latino community, Hause has been forced to reconsider his urge to return to the classroom.

“My worry, what is eye-opening for me, is to look at recent headlines,” he said. “That made me take a moment of pause and say, ‘Those are my kids.’ ”

Hause has continued to hold Zoom lessons into the summer for students interested in talking about current events, movie recommendations and how they are spending their time at home. Despite real buy-in from his kids for the online component, Hause said it is a far cry from what he is able to deliver in class. For some students, a major disruption like shelter-in-place can start a slow slide that leaves them feeling disconnected from school, he said.

“I worry ‘Are my kids going to fall behind? What is this doing for equity?’ ” he said.

’It is getting worse and worse every day’

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Silvia Zavala of Santa Rosa lost all of her work hours at Subway. Her husband, Jose Leon, took on extra shifts and began working six days a week at his truck driving job to help ease the financial burden.

It was stressful being out of work, but there were benefits, Zavala said. Not having to go to work every day meant she was able to be home to watch her three kids, who were suddenly no longer spending all day in class at Burbank Elementary but were instead at the family’s house trying to navigate school lessons online.

Emmanuel Zavala, 12 and then in sixth grade, and his brother, Julian, 11 in fifth, had a reasonably easy time grasping Zoom lessons and Google classroom. But for 6-year-old Fatima, who was still in kindergarten, Silvia Zavala needed to be on hand constantly to guide her through lessons and work packets sent home by the school.

“I am her teacher right now,” she said. “It’s different because she continues with packets and doing books. I do the best I can.”

And she knows other families who have a more difficult situation — where adults in the house are considered essential workers and continued to work but with little way to supervise kids who normally would have been at school.

“I have some friends in that situation. It’s really hard,” she said. “Both parents, they have to go back to work and just leave the kids sometimes alone. I have a friend who is a single mother and, well, she has no choice. She just leaves her kids with her older son.”

Since the pandemic struck, Zavala has had her hours cut to nothing, been reinstated part time, and on Monday, cut to zero yet again. If she goes back to work and the kids are still at home, she will again turn to her 62-year-old aunt, Maria Elena Vega to watch them — something that causes her additional worry.

The constant speculation about whether kids would return to school wore her down. She was happy to have a definitive answer last week. Kind of.

“Learning from home? I thought, ’Oh, my God, not again,’” she said. “But looking at the news every day and still the cases are up and up and up, I think it’s a very good idea.”

Her kids are desperate to return, but she worries what school will look like if and when kids eventually return to campus.

“I want Santa Rosa City Schools to be prepared with all the precautions for our kids. For sure they are working hard to do their best,” she said. “As parents we have to do our parts, too, helping our kids to do what they need to do and (send them to school) in masks and using hand sanitizer. I know it’s hard with a big group of people.”

For Emmanuel, the isolation of shelter-in-place is difficult. He tunes into Hause’s weekly Zoom class, but he misses seeing his friends — really seeing them.

“What they might not understand is how we actually are feeling,” he said. “We can’t go out and be with our friends and make that emotional connection physically. It’s really hard for a lot of kids to be stuck at home.”

Does he want to be back in school, even knowing the risks?

“I think it is worth the risk, with precautions,” he said. “Kids need to be back in the world and see what they have missed the last three or four months.”

’This is real’

Burbank yard duty supervisor Trini Abarca has for years watched kids run around the playground playing tag, hugging and high-fiving. She cannot imagine what recess and lunch time will look like with social distancing when kids eventually return.

“Imagine how they are going to play tag now?” she said. “They are saying they were going to make a lot of changes and (have kids) wear masks. How can we control that? How can we not have kids play together? You know how kids are, I feel like that is not going to happen.”

Abarca is a Burbank employee, but she’s also a Burbank parent. Her daughter, Kaela, just finished sixth grade there and Ashley is heading into fifth grade. Abarca had a baby boy, Yael, in May.

Abarca’s 70-year-old mother lives with the family and continues to work on a processed food production line. Her husband Jacinto works in landscaping. When talk about the pandemic increased this spring, Abarca said she didn’t know what to make of it or the risks.

“You know, at first, I was not believing that this was true, but when somebody that is close to us told us they got the COVID, I thought, ‘This is real,’ ” she said.

And since having her son, her concerns have only increased.

“I don’t feel safe going back to work now that I have my baby,” she said. “I am more worried about the baby than anybody else, because the baby, he’s only had one vaccine.”

Had the district chosen to return to the classroom, even part time and with masks and social distancing, Abarca would likely have kept her daughters home.

“For me, as a parent, I think it’s better for them to be at home,” she said.

’It’s a mental health issue’

Cynthia Spigarelli teaches third grade at Burbank. Sometime during the shelter-in-place in the spring she returned to her classroom and took stock of what was there — how desks were arranged and what it might look like if she was expected to stand in front of a class of third graders with everyone 6 feet apart.

“I went in and played with the layout,” she said. “And I put away everything that was shared — Legos, art supplies.”

There is sadness in her voice as she says it.

This is Spigarelli’s second stint at Burbank. She loves it so much that she and colleague Anne West, like Hause, have put on Zoom lessons well into summer. They stage art projects, craft-making sessions and sometimes do it just to keep a sense of connection with students. They drop off art supplies at students’ homes. After schools were shuttered in March, the students’ feelings of isolation was palpable, even via the tiny square screen of a Zoom session, Spigarelli said.

“The thing that saddens me the most was the loneliness,” she said. “It’s a mental health issue. It broke my heart.”

Even with its faults, distance learning in the spring was helped by teachers having a real connection already established with their kids and their parents. That won’t be there in the fall.

Hause likened it to a relationship taking root over time, sometimes without kids even knowing it. Then, when trouble hits — like a pandemic — the connection is sturdy enough to hold.

“So when the light winds pick up, the trees just don’t fall over,” he said.

For a long time, when she thought about the first day of school, Spigarelli saw herself in her classroom. If the district offered a hybrid, part-time on-campus plan, she was committed to going in. The surging virus numbers changed that, and it hurt.

“I want to choose that for our children. I want to choose that for our parents who need child care,” she said. “But I am relieved that I don’t have to put myself at risk, and I’m relieved that I don’t have to put my husband at risk. I’m relieved I didn’t have to make that decision.”

Agreed, said West.

“I’m human. I would like the human contact with the children,” she said. “They are human beings I’m teaching. It just makes me sad.”

’There are a lot of have-nots in our city’

The pandemic and the acute pressure it is putting on Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged households focused a glaring spotlight on what many Burbank teachers already knew — some families struggle daily to pay rent, to pay food bills, to send their kids off to school for the day.

“I know a mom, she had to quit to take care of her kids,” Spigarelli said. “She was a grocery clerk. Now she’s worried she can’t make rent and she’s worried about the disease. What horrible choices. She said, ‘I wasn’t sure if I went to work what I would bring home.’ She was terrified and had no support.”

West, who taught a second/third grade combination class at Burbank last spring and has been at the A Street campus for almost 18 years, said any return-to-school plans in the future have to keep those realities at the forefront. There were lessons learned last spring.

When students didn’t show up for Zoom classes or parents didn’t respond to emails asking about things like connectivity in their homes, staff members at Burbank had to do extra digging. Staffers made house calls to help with login issues.

“If we didn’t hear from families, we’d have our family resource person calling and start finding people — making sure they have what they need, making sure people got lunches and food,” West said. “You learn a lot. There are a lot of ’have-nots’ in our city.”

Burbank principal Debi Cardozo said the crisis made clear the dedication of her staff.

“They are a committed staff already, when we are in school, but they were just really thoughtful in meeting families where they were at,” she said. “It was all hands on deck, meeting their needs, whatever it took.”

Countywide, 7% of households do not have a computer and 13% lack a high-speed Internet connection, according to U.S. Census estimates. But even with programs in place to loan computers and Wi-Fi hot spots, that doesn’t necessarily help a family in which every adult works and there are multiple children trying to learn online.

“We cannot assume that someone at (Abraham Lincoln Elementary School) or Burbank has a family member at home who can help them with things. We cannot assume that,” West said. “The assumption is that all people have access to technology and access to things and that’s just not true and you need more than one computer in the house if you have more than one child.”

Guiding a child through distance learning while working from home is not an option that many parents at Burbank have, Moreno said.

“In the beginning, I would need to really remind myself that parents might have lost their job or they are sharing a room with another family. The last thing you worry about it is if Johnny turned in his five assignments this week,” she said.

“Different things need to be taken into consideration, like parents who have to work to pay the rent, or work to pay the mortgage or work to put food on the table,” she said. “We need to be very careful about balancing that out before moving forward.”

’Teaching is an in-person thing’

The virus is scary even as it is, in a lot of ways, a mystery. Burbank Elementary provides a salve for near constant fears, parents said.

Burbank is a school where teachers deliver supplies — academic and otherwise — to students’ homes. Burbank is a school to which a boy who moved to Sacramento after his fifth grade year in 2019, showed up to Zoom meetings and attended the school’s socially distanced promotion ceremony this spring. He continues to log onto online class meetings this summer.

He was a member of “Team ’20,’ ” Hause said. “He never took the jersey off.”

And Burbank is a school of hugs.

Veteran teachers lament that when they go back, if they go back, those moments are gone. At least for now.

West had a student last year who, for whatever reason, was comforted and calmed in moments of anxiety by rubbing his nose against her shoulder. She knows it sounds gross and doesn’t expect anyone who doesn’t spend their day surrounded by 8- and 9-year-olds to understand.

When classrooms eventually reopen she will have to tell that child no. But in evaluating all of the factors at play in her students’ lives and in her own, she wants to return to her classroom. She also wants it to be safe, for everyone.

“Teaching is an in-person thing,” she said. “I will wear a mask, I will encourage my kids to wear a mask. It will be gummy and wet and strange — because that’s what kids do.”

Spigarelli, too, will return when classes reopen. It’s in part because she worries that students who have already endured learning loss from school closures — in the wake of the Tubbs fire in 2017, the Kincade fire and power shut-offs in 2019, and shelter-in-place last spring — will take one hit too many to their educational trajectory if a plan cannot be crafted to get them back in the classroom safely. And soon.

“That is my worry,” she said. “That this is the crack or the schism in the American Dream.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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